Water no get enemy? Not in Sierra Leone…

Fela Kuti, the legendary afrobeat pioneer, once famously sang “water no get enemy” (literal translation: water has no enemy). Intuitively that seems true, but a clear message from the horrific mudslides and ensuing flooding that took place in Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown on Monday 14 August is that depending on the circumstances, water can be a friend or a deadly foe.

Although there are still no confirmed numbers, it is thought that anywhere between 450 and more than 1000 people died that Monday morning. Failure to heed regular warnings by environmentalists, engineers and activists has seen rampant, unplanned building on what should be protected forests on the hillsides of Freetown.

As a result, more than three years after the deadly Ebola outbreak and 26 years since the start of the country’s 10-year civil war, another man-made, man-sanctioned, man-condoned and man-tolerated disaster has devastated Sierra Leone. Yes, I say ‘man’ deliberately, because men rule and dominate this land.

In the early hours of 14 August, exceptionally heavy overnight rain – even for a city that records an average annual rainfall of 3639 mm – seems to have precipitated a landslide. Few escaped the deadly envelope of mud and water obeying gravity as it rushed down the hill carrying boulders and bodies with it.

The stories that have filtered out from the disaster are harrowing. On the radio I heard the story of one man who had to leave his house early to attend a family meeting. One of his daughters picked out a pair of socks for him to wear, while another extracted a promise from him that he’d bring home a gift. And off he went – never to see his family or his home again. He returned to a desperate rescue attempt as people tried to dig their loved ones and neighbours out with their bare hands.

Then there’s Alusine, a security guard who texted me to say that he’d lost all his property to the water with no enemy. He shared a home with his wife and their five-year-old daughter at the bottom of the valley in an area called Tengbe Town. His ‘pan body’ (tin shack) was swept away along with all his belongings, including the things he had bought his daughter for school.

So what next for Alusine? His wife and daughter have sought refuge with relatives on a temporary basis while he repairs their pan body so that they can move back to their precarious dwelling.

Move to somewhere safer, I advised him, with a hint of exasperation. But how useful or realistic is that advice? Where can Alusine and the hundreds of thousands of other informal workers living in and around Freetown find safe, secure and affordable housing?

According to the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the population of Freetown has grown by about 3.07 per cent annually since 1985 to over one million people. Rapid urbanisation has resulted in the proliferation of informal housing settlements around and beyond a city which is now bursting at the seams.

In the absence of the planned, mass construction of low-cost housing, people will continue to crowd into unsafe “houses” right at sea-level, sometimes even in the water on artificially banked land. It’s cheap, it’s near to their places of work and there’s a community to rely on in times of woe, like now.

That’s why any ‘solutions’ that involve forced relocations and the dispersal of people to far-off locations rarely work. Despite the admonishment of the authorities, or the law, people will simply drift back.

What now?

Sadly, last month’s disaster in Freetown is not unique. More than 1200 people were killed by floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal at the end of August while the US state of Texas is still counting its dead following a Category 4 storm on 25 August. In addition, more than 100,000 people have been displaced following massive flooding in the Nigerian state of Benue. The global effects of climate change mean that extreme weather events are going to become more and more frequent. The question is what is the government of Sierra Leone going to do to prepare for the inevitable?

This time, as with every time we suffer such a tragedy, Sierra Leoneans are running a gamut of emotions and responses in its aftermath. In addition to rushing to the aid of victims, there has been an outpouring of heartfelt condolences for those who lost their lives.

But we also feel frustrated that we have to keep going through this tragic, macabre ritual, as every year lives and homes are lost to flooding. We feel anger that in spite of these recent tragedies, we seem to have learned no lessons.

Bitterness that we seemingly live in a lawless society – these were mostly illegal settlements, after all, and some of the homes were mansions were owned by the very well-connected. And embarrassment that any mention of Sierra Leone on CNN or BBC probably means another story of helplessness and incompetence.

Inevitably, citizens are calling on the authorities to “do something”. Yes, something should be done. Lots of things, in fact. But what exactly? Sierra Leone has a complex, systemic problem on its hands that, at this late stage, defies quick fixes or well-funded projects that attempt to deal with issues on a piecemeal basis.

We’ll have to dig deeper to avoid tackling just the symptoms. We’ll have to eschew populist measures with an eye on the March 2018 presidential, parliamentary, and council elections. We’ll have to involve the communities affected to find workable solutions.

We’ll have to enforce rules fairly, regardless of who knows who (the ‘connectocracy’ of rule by, for, and of the well-connected). The only “order from above” acceptable will be an order to obey the order on the books rather than one to bend the rules for a special friend.

We’ll have to be creative, innovative, and think outside the proverbial box. Alusine, for example, texted me a few days later to say that he had found somewhere to live in a safer location. All he needed was some help with part of the rent (US$100 for the whole year).

How many Alusines might be able to find a durable solution to their own misfortune if given a one-off cash transfer of, say, US$500? Wouldn’t this be better than keeping people in temporary shelter pending rehousing them en-masse in a site way out of town, far from their source of livelihoods?

We’ll have to experiment to see what works. We’ll have to deploy the resources for their intended purposes only. We’ll need effective cooperation and collaboration between dozens of ministries, departments, agencies and their turf-protecting, resource-hogging, egocentric bosses. The public and private sectors will need to hang heads and partner up.

The problem is, we don’t do any of the above well in Sierra Leone. As a result, we may well end up concluding that Fela was wrong after all. That water get enemy, and that enemy is us.